As many of you already know, there is an ongoing campaign to convince Penn to divest its endowment from fossil fuels, or in other words, to eliminate all of the University’s investments in the coal, oil and gas companies that pollute the atmosphere and cause climate change. Just over a year after this campaign has taken off, Fossil Free Penn has gained the support of the Undergraduate Assembly along with 87.8 percent of undergraduate students (according to an undergraduate referendum), and thanks to our efforts, the University Council is in the process of appointing a committee to assess the divestment proposal FFP submitted to them in the fall.
Francis Leong, representing the Penn Sustainability Review, cautioned readers about divestment in a Daily Pennsylvanian editorial on Jan. 19. Leong described divestment supporters, a considerable majority of the undergraduate population, as “masquerading as financiers and climatologists” and urged them instead to “educate [them]selves” and “turn [their] fervor to learning more about [divestment] first.” On this one, however, it’s Leong who could learn a bit more.
Since its inception, Fossil Free Penn has been mobilizing to promote divestment and inform the Penn community about it. Last spring, we set up camp in college houses, on Locust Walk and in other popular campus locations for a full week to talk to our peers about divestment and give them the opportunity to vote in the Nominations & Elections Committee’s referendum. This organizational feat was preceded by weeks of planning, collecting of signatures, coalition building and spreading the word about the campaign, and it resulted in the overwhelming support of the 33 percent of undergraduates that participated in the NEC’s referendum, more than double the required number. Then, FFP spent the entirety of last semester researching and crafting a proposal that will soon be investigated by a committee that the University Council is currently in the process of appointing. With everything we’ve done, Leong seems to be the one who hasn’t done his homework.
Perhaps the most apparent misjudgment in Leong’s column was his underestimation of the influence divestment can have. Leong dismissed the movement to divest from Apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s based on prices in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange at the time, but he failed to realize that the 155 divesting institutions were part of a larger movement that included cities and states and ultimately pressured the Republican-controlled Senate to override President Reagan’s veto of a 1968 bill that banned United States investments in South Africa, along with other economic sanctions. Nelson Mandela himself acknowledged the significant role university divestment played in toppling Apartheid.
In PSR’s column, Leong makes the subtle but specious suggestion that decisions like divestment should be purely business decisions, but if he had taken the time to learn about divestment as he suggested his peers do, he would know that Penn has never operated like that. In fact, the Trustees have established criteria specifically for socially responsible divestment, and in the past the University has divested from companies involved with the genocide in Darfur.
Fossil Free Penn is not like the other campaigns and student activist groups that Leong alludes to in his article. We haven’t blockaded administration buildings or held sit-ins. We don’t stir up dissent, and our demonstrations haven’t ended in arrests. Since the beginning, FFP has been committed to waging this campaign the right way. We have worked hard to build a strong coalition of students, faculty and alumni in support of our cause. We have followed the University’s procedure for proposing divestment, and we are happy to comply with that process. We believe that it is the financial, moral, social and environmental responsibility of the University of Pennsylvania to divest from fossil fuels. We are and always have been committed to supporting this position with facts and reasons, not just unbridled passion as Leong suggests, and informing the Penn community about those reasons.
We encourage Leong and the writers for the Penn Sustainability Review to view our detailed reasons and the sources that support them on our website, fossilfreepenn.org. We understand PSR’s concern about divestment better than anyone, but we do believe that these concerns have already been fully addressed by our campaign. We echo their sentiment that Penn students should educate themselves about divestment, and we hope that PSR and the rest of the Penn community will visit our website to learn more.
FOSSIL FREE PENN leads the campaign to get Penn to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. Learn more at fossilfreepenn.org.
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